Year of Mysteries, Part 9: The Name of the Rose

I’m honestly a bit shocked at how resistant I’ve been to this book the whole year. I knew it would be “hard,” so I kept putting it off. But I love Infinite Jest and Gravity’s Rainbow and a bunch of hard books.

This book has a reputation it doesn’t deserve. I didn’t think it was hard at all in the same way those other ones are. It’s actually written in a very similar way to the way I write. There are so many interesting layers to this book that it will be hard to discuss the “mystery novel” aspect, because that was only one piece (and kind of the least interesting).

Early on, we get one of my favorite characters. He can’t speak any known language, but he’s lived in so many places that he’s developed his own. It takes from all the common languages and merges into a strange thing anyone can understand.

Eco doesn’t do this in the abstract, either. The speech is written out fully. This character is a synechdoche for the book itself. The Name of the Rose isn’t a historical work or pure fiction or a mystery novel or postmodernist metafiction or theology. It draws on a bunch of sources and amalgamates them to a strange hybrid a reader from any of these backgrounds could appreciate on a different level.

Eco doesn’t hide the pieces. They are all in plain sight through the characters. We have Jorge de Burgos representing Jorge Luis Borges. We get William of Baskerville representing Sherlock Holmes. And the title itself is obviously a reference to Romeo and Juliet.

…Or is it? Eco actually tells us the true inspiration is a Latin verse by a Benedictine monk named Bernard of Cluny. Since Eco was a semiotician, I have to believe he also had Wittgenstein in the back of his head, too.

What is the mystery?

The narrator travels to a monastery, and upon arrival there is a mysterious death of one of the monks. He appears to have thrown himself from the window of a library. Over the next few days, many more deaths occur.

This occupies the main narrative momentum, but I basically want to not discuss this further. Anyone who reads this book for the mystery is in for a shock. Let’s get back to the references.

Everyone sees some of the obvious Borges references here from his famous stories. But if you’ve read Labyrinths, you might start to think every single story in the collection gets referenced.

Much of the early part of The Name of the Rose has to do with navigating a complicated labyrinth (Labyrinths, The Garden of Forking Paths) to get to the library (The Library of Babel). They must crack a code (Death and the Compass, The God’s Script). They speak theology to each other (The Theologeans, The Three Versions of Judas). Issues of authorship with the narrator (Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote). Strange language spoken by the characters (Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius).

I think I’ve made my point. It’s not just “The Library of Babel,” like many people believe. It’s almost a transformation of the themes of the full collection of stories into a novel.

Another fascinating, easy to overlook aspect of the book is the chapter summary at the start of each chapter. At first, I thought they were mere summaries. But they got long and weird and pretty humorous as they went on.

Most people probably skip them thinking they offer nothing but a summary. Here’s one:

In which, though the chapter is short, old Alinardo says very interesting things about the labyrinth and about the way to enter it.

It doesn’t say much, but it teaches you something important: these summaries will provide commentary in addition to the summary. Here’s another:

In which the labyrinth is finally broached, and the intruders have strange visions and, as happens in labyrinths, lose their way.

If these were just summaries it shouldn’t provide commentary on the length of the chapter or how “interesting” a certain conversation is or remark “as happens in labyrinths.” I grew to love these summaries as much as the chapters themselves.

I’m not sure what else to say. I’m excited to re-read this. I think it will be as exciting as the first time through as I catch more and more references and understand the themes better.

I must caution that this is absolutely not for everyone, but if you find any of this post interesting, I can’t recommend this book enough. It is brilliant and well-deserved of the praise it has received over the years.

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On Doubts and Taste in Books

Doubt is a good thing when you’re a writer. It’s an important part of everyone’s journey. I don’t want to speak in absolutes, but if you’ve never doubted the greatness of your work, then it’s probably not very good. You probably haven’t grown much as a writer.

Doubt comes in waves. It happens a lot early on, but as you write and publish more and more, you come to have a bit more confidence in your own style and taste. You begin to see the common pitfalls in other new writers without even trying. This internalization means you mostly aren’t making those mistakes anymore.

Doubt starts to come from other places. Maybe you aren’t getting the sales you would like. Maybe a negative review resonates with you. Maybe you read a book on writing, and you realize there’s a big mistake you’re making that you never noticed before. You start to wonder what other mistakes you’re making.

I have a new source of doubt, and it is coming from the strangest place: reading. I used to love reading. I would devour books. I’d be completely transported to another place, no matter the book or genre. I couldn’t get enough.

It makes sense that as my understanding of story grew, I’d start to not like some poorly constructed novels. It makes sense that novels with sloppy prose would fall away. It makes sense that I’d get more discerning in my taste along several dimensions.

What worries me is that I basically don’t like anything I read anymore. I just can’t get into any book. I currently read 60-80 books a year (it sounds like a lot, but that’s one book a week plus some audiobooks while running or traveling).

The scary part is that it’s not like I’m scraping the bottom of the barrel. I’ve chosen all 23 books I’ve read this year from “best of” lists or from direct recommendations.

I got into Mystic River in late January, but since then, I haven’t really gotten into any book I’ve read. Oathbringer has a 4.65/5 rating on Goodreads after 42,500 reviews. The book is basically unreadable to me. It’s too slow. It has too many unnecessary details. It’s the type of self-indulgent thing popular writers can only get away with after they hit a certain level of fame (think Stephen King). It only got published in that form because people are afraid to tell Sanderson to cut it down.

I won’t call out every problem with every book I’ve read this year. The point is that I’m really worried that I’ve developed my taste and style in a way that doesn’t match the vast majority of people. These are my doubts. Maybe it’s not that all these popular people are writing bad books; maybe it’s my own writing that’s bad.

I can think of a few other explanations.

First, maybe it’s burnout. There’s not much more to this theory. Maybe 80 books a year is too much. If I just take a break and reset, I’ll find myself getting lost in some good books again.

Second, maybe writing changes the way you read. I still love writing. I really get into my own books as I’m writing them. There might just be something about the active nature of producing a story that makes passively consuming one inherently less interesting.

Third, maybe I actually am on a bad streak. As they say, 90% of everything is crap. If we take that to be a fact, then there’s a high probability of long streaks of crap. Of course, what does this even mean? There are “objectively good” books that people hate and “objectively bad” books that people love.

Fourth, my taste is not marketable, which makes it hard to naturally run across the types of books that will truly engage me. I don’t have the patience for the experimental literary stuff that I did in my youth. So the literary scene tends to disappoint me. But the commercial fiction scene tends to be too sloppy for my taste.

My latest book, Specter of the Spheres, tries to straddle this line. It’s high-concept, metaphorical, and has a complicated construction like a literary novel. But it’s wrapped in a fantasy quest and even some sci-fi elements. I’ve learned that this is usually called “slipstream,” and I haven’t read anything in that genre for a long time.

But maybe my doubts have some truth to them. Maybe I need to spend some time re-calibrating what I think is good. I don’t even know where to start with this, though, because I can’t find books out there that I like to read anymore.

Why It Works: The Lord of the Rings

A series in which I oversimplify one concept from a work of literature to make you a better writer.

Corruption.

The ring corrupts everyone.

Quite early on, we learn that Frodo, our hero, is not immune to the corrupting effects. This becomes one of the greatest sources of tension. Will Frodo be able to destroy the ring when the time comes?

A common misconception about the hero’s journey fantasy writers make early in their career is that they set up an impossible task, and then through the course of the novel, the hero grows and can suddenly overcome the task. This will leave the reader feeling cheated.

The impossible task can’t do the work of creating tension and then turn out not to be impossible at the end of the novel. Imagine if after all the buildup of The Lord of the RingsFrodo stands at the Cracks of Doom and tosses the ring in like Rose at the end of Titanic.

We might not be talking about the books today.

What makes the climax of The Lord of the Rings so good is that Frodo is corrupted. He doesn’t magically succeed over the impossible. He doesn’t throw the ring in. He puts it on his finger with the intention of not destroying it. Frodo succumbs to the corruption, because it’s impossible for him not to.

The first time you read or see that, your reaction should be, “No. What? That’s not how this is supposed to go.”

But it’s the only way it could go. We know that at some deep level. The only way the ring gets destroyed is through its absolute corrupting effects. The ring gets destroyed by accident. If any living being managed to do it through sheer willpower, we’d have to rethink the entire plot. We’d be forced to think: well, I guess the ring wasn’t that powerful after all.

Keep this in mind the next time you’re plotting a book. If something has an absolute attached to it, then it must be an absolute. The hero can’t magically rise above it. Use the absolute to your advantage. What happens if your hero actually succumbs to it? This could be an opportunity for a dramatic and harrowing plot twist right at the climax.

Year of Mystery Novels, Part 4: The Big Sleep

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The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler is probably my least favorite mystery novel of the year so far.

Let’s start with the good. Chandler’s style of writing is amazing. It’s full of sentences that contribute to the noir atmosphere. One of my favorite examples is: “Dead men are heavier than broken hearts.” It obviously makes no sense as a description, but it says so much about the attitude and psychology of the main character, Philip Marlowe.

Paying attention to the little things pays off. For example, when Marlowe enters a used bookshop early on, he asks for a highly specific book. I thought this was the author filling the book with needless detail, a boring bad habit of some writers. But in actuality, it’s a book that doesn’t exist, so the fact that the used bookseller didn’t know this showed they were a fraud. This payoff only comes to readers paying attention to this type of thing.

So I thought the writing style and layering in of small details that pay off were excellent. In fact, maybe the best of all the mystery novels I’ve read this year.

The problem is that I had a very hard time picking the book up when I stopped reading it for a session. I just wasn’t invested in the plot or characters. I think this had to do with the fact that this “hardboiled” subgenre is a slower burn. It’s more about gradually exposing a much larger situation. This means the tension comes from the context you’re given rather than an immediate threat or mystery or suspects.

I don’t even have to reveal too much of the plot to discuss what felt off. I think a lot of the character actions were unmotivated. People are murdered, but I found myself thinking: really? Over that? I know they were “criminals,” and by that I mean “producing pornography” and “being homosexual,” but it’s not like they were mob bosses hardened to murder. It was too extreme for the context.

Everything in the plot felt more like convenience than truly motivated action. I get that we have to look at it through the lens of the time. “Revenge porn” is bad enough today, having naked pictures loose of the daughter of a high-ranking person back in the 20’s could destroy that person. I get that.

But I never really felt the danger or tension or potential catastrophes from the way the novel was told. It was like a big puzzle, and each piece had been placed there for the purpose of completing the puzzle and not as a truly motivated plot point.

Maybe I’m the only one that felt that way, because this is a pretty universally praised book. One of the cool things about it was that you see basically every hardboiled detective trope in this book, as it was the first of its kind.

I think I’m going to take a brief break and then come back with something modern. It hasn’t occurred to me before now that people might want to read along with me. I’ll be doing Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow by Peter Høeg. I’ve heard it might upset the “purists,” but I’m trying to get a variety over the course of the year.

Year of Mystery Novels, Part 2: Mystic River

For my second mystery novel of the year, I decided to do Mystic River by Dennis Lehane. I know this was a really famous movie when it came out, but somehow I went into this not knowing anything about the plot or mystery at all. I highly recommend this to anyone who can manage it.

I really should have started the year with this one, because it blew me away. It could very well end up being one of my favorite books I read this year. It also clarified for me what I didn’t like about The Hound of the Baskervilles.

Mystic River has incredible depth to it. The atmosphere of the neighborhood plays a big role. Each of the characters have a history with the others. In the first few pages, we get a horrific scene that carries on thirty years later to create guilt and pain between two of the main characters.

The characters are all deeply flawed, and one of the best parts of the novel is to see how small mistakes can escalate quickly into terrible, life-changing moments through perfectly understandable overreactions.

This is what the Sherlock Holmes novel was missing. Mystic River is first and foremost a novel with subplots and tension and a bunch of moving parts contributing to the plot. The Holmes novel was a mystery first and maybe character study next. The “novel” part was more an afterthought.

Let’s move on from these vague descriptions to some of the takeaway lessons. There will obviously be spoilers from here on out.

It takes 150 pages to get to the discovery of the dead body. Before this happens, Lehane carefully sets up a bunch of scenarios. It’s unclear which, if any, will turn into the main mystery of the novel.

The way he does this is to give us points of view of people tangential to the potential crimes. The opening chapter is from the point of view of a childhood friend of a kid that is abducted. Next we get the wife of a man who comes home with blood all over him.

This sets up a bunch of scenarios, all of which pique the interest of the reader even if they end up not being the main crime. It’s rather clever, because the book doesn’t turn so much on figuring who did it. Instead, we want to figure out how each of these scenarios are related. It’s a much more engaging way to let the mystery unfold.

Another thing this book does well is to show the grieving of the families involved. In a more classical mystery telling we are so focused on the detective and clues that this human and emotional component totally disappears.

I won’t spoil the actual ending, but I will say that it is nice to have the crime be so believable. I don’t like when it turns out to be a complete sociopath or someone who can only be described as “pure evil.” Turn on the news. People die at the hands of others for really mundane reasons. And, wow, the final reveal in this book will leave the most coldhearted person shaken.

The pacing and tension were done really well for all the the above reasons. My only complaint is my standard one. This is clearly “commercial fiction” with how sloppy the prose style is. The first fifty pages took some effort to plod through.

Without hunting for the truly egregious sentences, here’s one on a random early page:

He’d [Sean’s father] planned the back porch here, something he and his friends threw up one blistering summer when Sean was five, and he came down here when he wanted peace and quiet, and sometimes when he was angry, Sean knew, angry at Sean or Sean’s mother or his job.

This is very typical. The sentences are fine, except at the end they get needlessly confusing and wordy. Lehane tends to use pronouns a touch too long without reminding us who it is referring to. He also conflates point of view (like in this one it’s hard to tell if Sean’s father or Sean is supposed to be the viewpoint).

Overall, I think the biggest takeaway from this novel is to keep the mystery active with scenarios and character actions. It creates a more compelling read than when information is revealed through the discovery of clues.

My 2018 Reading List

Two years ago I started to use a theme for my year of reading. This was an attempt to focus on one form or style for study. I did a year of giant novels and then a year of short fiction. This year I wanted to challenge myself to read something I have almost no familiarity with.

This will be The Year of Mystery Novels. I came to the realization that I’d never read any mystery novel, maybe ever. I haven’t even read classics like Sherlock Holmes or anything by Agatha ChristieYikes!

Sure, I’ve read the Dresden Files, but those are urban fantasy with mystery elements. I’ve read plenty of novels that have mysteries in them, but the mystery novel itself is different. It stands or falls on the ability to keep the reader surprised, guessing, and intrigued about a mystery.

This is an ability all novelists could use to up their writing. So, this year, I want to explore what makes a mystery novel work. My goal is to read ten, and these are the ones I’ve come up with so far:

  1. Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle
  2. The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler
  3. Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie
  4. The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead
  5. The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco
  6. Mystic River by Dennis Lehane
  7. Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow by Peter Høeg
  8. A Crime in the Neighborhood by Suzanne Bern

I need two more, so if you love mysteries and see something missing, let me know. I’m also not locked in to any of these. I tried to get a huge range from classic procedural to modern paranormal to experimental to literary.

As for the rest of my reading, I usually shoot for 52 books a year. That’s one book a week. It’s enough that I have to keep reading to do it, but it’s not stressful if I miss a few days for illness or travel or something.

Other than mysteries, I want to read about ten books written in 2018. At the end of last year, I realized I dropped the ball on current literature. I will also shoot for about ten nonfiction books. That leaves twelve books that I’ll probably fill in on a whim. I’m in the middle of a few fantasy series, so it will mostly be those (Malazan, The Stormlight Archives, The Wheel of Time, Dresden Files).

My 2017 Reading Awards

As usual, I’m going to do a best of 2017 books list. This does not mean the book came out in 2017; it means I read it this year. According to Goodreads, I read 55 books. Of course, many of those were novellas, and probably a dozen I listened to while on long runs training for a half marathon. So don’t get too freaked out by that number.

 

BEST OVERALL:

Interpreter of Maladies – Jhumpa Lahiri

My thoughts are recorded here.

The Book of the New Sun – Gene Wolfe

I read this divided into four novels. Only The Sword of the Lichtor stood out at the time as excellent. But if the four are taken as one single novel, then I think this deserves best overall. Even ten months later, I continue to think about it. It’s fascinating how I’ll be reading something else, and I realize something about this book. I think: Oh, that’s what that probably meant.

I remain haunted by its strangeness, and how perfect and shocking it was to realize certain things right in front of me the whole time were something totally different. (I’m remaining intentionally vague to not spoil it for anyone).

 

BEST SCI-FI/FANTASY:

Imajica – Clive Barker

I know Clive Barker writes “horror,” but this novel is fantasy through and through. Nothing has influenced my writing this year more than this novel. Further thoughts here.

Gardens of the Moon – Steven Erikson

This is some of the best written, most inventive/unique, and deep fantasy novels I’ve ever read. I can’t wait to dig into the rest of the Malazan series. I have the second one sitting on my shelf.

Analysis of the prose can be found here.

 

BEST NONFICTION:

The Boys in the Boat – Daniel James Brown

This was an impeccably written and gripping story of a group of poor boys working hard to achieve their Olympic dreams. The pacing and prose are better than most fiction books I’ve read. Daniel James Brown has produced something beautiful here.

The story also serves as a much needed reminder that intercontinental sport competition and the Olympics in particular are never really just friendly shows of competition. They are highly political acts that can have real-world implications.

From the 1936 games under Hitler to the Munich massacre in ’72 to the recent use of victory at the Sochi Olympics for Russia to invade Crimea and Ukraine, this book should serve as a wake up call to anyone under false delusions about what’s really going on.

The Case Against Sugar – Gary Taubes

The book starts with the analogy of a trial. Sugar is being prosecuted for many of the illnesses associated with obesity: diabetes, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, heart disease, etc. This book is the case against sugar.

Am I convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt? No. And if you were, you didn’t understand the arguments. In nutrition science, one will never reach that point. It isn’t even theoretically possible to tease out such complicated interactions.

Am I convinced there is a preponderance of evidence? Of course! I would again say that if you can’t convict at this standard based on the case made in this book, you just haven’t understood the arguments and evidence.

The fact that this evidence standard is good enough to convict in many civil and criminal cases means we, as a society, need to take sugar more seriously. It’s an addictive drug and there’s a preponderance of evidence that it causes four of the top ten leading causes of death each year.

Dialogue – Robert McKee

This was quite excellent and a must read for all writers of fiction. Note: the book is NOT about how two characters converse with each other. This touches upon all aspects of prose, because even exposition is a type of dialogue between the narrative perspective and the reader.

The most useful part to me was the constant reiteration of how great works and complex characters use subtext. People rarely say what they mean or what they think. When your fictional characters do this, they come across as underdeveloped and one dimensional.

The price of the book is worth it for the in-depth analysis of several scenes from famous works at the end.

 

BEST RELEASED IN 2017:

I’m going to skip this category this year. There were a bunch of books that came out that looked great, but I never got around to them. The Case Against Sugar wins by default. Instead, I’ll list books that came out this year that I want to read.

Oathbringer – Brandon Sanderson

Exit West – Moshin Hamid

Borne – Jeff Vandermeer

Lincoln in the Bardo – George Saunders